Manchester United making tactical progress under Van Gaal

The new manager has begun implementing the 3-4-1-2 formation that served his Netherlands side so well at the World Cup in Brazil.
LANDOVER, Md. — Much of the Louis van Gaal era at Manchester United will be defined by the inevitable change in culture. Out with David Moyes' passivity, in with the Dutchman's brashness.

Yet the tenor of the club is just one aspect of a manager's influence. It may be easiest to focus on Van Gaal's commanding persona, but his tactical preferences represent a substantial shift as well.  

While Moyes deployed a straightforward 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, Van Gaal this preseason has unsurprisingly implemented the 3-4-1-2 formation that served his Netherlands side so well at the World Cup in Brazil. Most notably, the alignment calls for three center backs and a pair of wing backs who can contribute on both sides of the ball.

"Everyone is just getting to know each other," forward Wilfried Zaha said. "It's a different shape, and the manager is just trying to get us used to it. We need to turn it around and understand what we need to do for the season."

MORE: Full Goal 50 list | Beautiful people in Brazil

Playing its third match under Van Gaal, United battled to a scoreless draw Tuesday against Inter Milan before winning the penalty kicks tiebreaker. Although United didn't score, it did control the bulk of the possession before 61,238 at FedEx Field and outshot the Serie A club by a 9-5 margin.

"I'm very pleased," Van Gaal said. "I think we played by far the best match in our sequence of three matches, not only in ball possession of our opponent — with only one shot on goal, that was given by the referee [on a free kick] — but also we created I think six, seven chances."

Adding a wrinkle to the formation was the unconventional usage of playmaker Juan Mata. Rather than float beneath the strikers, Mata regularly pressed high into a center forward position while Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck stayed wide.

The formation essentially became a 3-4-3, with Mata as a so-called "false nine." Shinji Kagawa then filled the role after Mata exited at halftime.

Mata wasn't the only player adjusting to a tinkered position. Natural wingers Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia started at wing back, before Valencia gave way to newcomer Luke Shaw for the second half.

After starting just 17 matches in all competitions last season, Young looked particularly invigorated by the change in position while going 90 minutes — 45 on the left, 45 on the right.

"It's a new season," Young said. "I want to come in and impress, and the only way you can do that is in preseason. So that's what I'm looking to do."

Even though Van Gaal inherited a roster lacking natural fits for his defense, United has allowed just two goals in its three preseason matches: a 65-yard lob from Miralem Pjanic and a penalty kick in the 3-2 win over Roma on Saturday. The play of youngsters Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett has given Van Gaal some confidence in his existing back line depth.

But following the offseason exits of veterans Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, the manager has also acknowledged the need for United to bolster its defensive corps.

Asked about potential back line reinforcements, Van Gaal said: "I'm first looking at the defenders we have. We are doing well, I think. But you are right that we are looking at defenders because a lot of defenders have gone and we have to replace them."

United now moves on to Saturday's match against Real Madrid in Ann Arbor, Michigan, followed by a possible appearance in the International Champions Cup final Monday in Miami.

Then it's a final tune-up against Valencia at Old Trafford on Aug. 12 before Van Gaal's 3-4-1-2 debuts in the Premier League four days later against Swansea City.

"We're getting used to the system, we're getting fitter, we're getting stronger, and we're getting more confidence," midfielder Tom Cleverley said. "We want to get our manager off to a good start."